The Complexities of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We.”

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“There is no final revolution.” – I-330, We

When it comes to classic dystopian novels, it’s hard to compete with the brutal combination of George Orwell’s 1984 and Alduous Huxley’s Brave New World.  Orwell’s novel – which I’ll admit to being biased toward—is overwhelmingly bleak, painting a very human portrait of what would happen if human beings lost their humanity.  It shows a world that has been destroyed by fear.  Huxley, on the other hand, portrays a world destroyed by our obsession with meaningless triviality.  The two books are opposing sides of the same coin.

Both novels, however, owe an enormous debt to a novel that is mentioned all-too-rarely: Yevgeny Zamyatin’s sci-fi masterpiece, We.   And it’s a shame, because We is a very powerful novel in its own right, and it deserves far greater recognition.

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Orwell was very open about We’s inspiration on 1984, whereas Huxley claimed to have never read it—a statement that Orwell disagreed with, believing that Huxley was lying.  Regardless of who was lying about what, the parallels between We and both of these classics is impossible not to see.  We predated both novels by several decades, seeing publication in 1924.

So, what’s the plot?

We takes place in a world of glass—glass walls, glass sidewalks, glass buildings.  A fully transparent world, where everyone follows the exact same schedule—even down to impersonal, scheduled sexual encounters—and everyone has been carefully trained to despise individuality and loathe imagination, instead aspiring to become merely a cog in the great machine of the One State.  Everyone lives in cities, separated from the outside world by the Green Wall. The world is ruled by logic and mathematics, and free will is a thing of the past.   Now, this society of glass is attempting its greatest achievement yet: the Integral, a spaceship that will be used to conquer other worlds.

In this strange world, we are introduced to a character named D-503 – the head engineer of the Integral, a diehard supporter of the One State, and a man whose entire world is about to be turned upside down when he accidentally falls headfirst into a sexual relationship with a rebellious woman named I-330.

Yes, this probably sounds a bit familiar, but remember, We did it first.

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The first thing that separates the novel We from its dystopian children is that it’s far more science fiction oriented; whereas the sci-fi elements of novels like 1984 and Brave New World are relegated to the background, We displays them far more openly, and the concept itself is far less realistic.  Another notable difference between We and most other dystopian novels is that the protagonist, D-503, isn’t particularly sympathetic.  In contrast to Winston, who betrays his party early and often, D-503 is constantly looking for a way to undermine his own betrayal and return things to how they were before he met I-330.   Finally, the third primary difference is tone.  Yamyatin’s novel isn’t quite as serious nor gritty  as Orwell’s—if anything, it’s really more a satire, and it’s a satire of the best kind.

It’s amazing that this novel was written as early as it was; inside its pages, Zamyatin mounts a decimating attack on Soviet Totalitarianism, utterly goring the very concept.  For that alone, it’s an incredibly important novel to read.

However, due to this more satirical nature, We doesn’t have quite the same sense of fierce, torturous horror as 1984, though several sequences toward the end come close; this isn’t a flaw, simply a difference in style.  1984 was crafted to make the reader scared, angry and furious – to force the reader into action, to open their eyes.  We’s goal is similar, but different.  Yamyatin wants to make the reader shocked, he wants to make the leader scoff mockingly, and then, finally…he wants to make the reader think.

Unlike the many dystopian novels it inspired, We isn’t anywhere near as despairing – but it isn’t entirely hopeful either, and this dualism is exactly what makes it interesting.  As I-330’s quote at the beginning of this blog states, the central theme of We is that “There is no final revolution.”  We doesn’t paint a picture of a world that will forever become worse and worse, but it also doesn’t imply that humanity will always overcome all evils and be prosperous.

No, the statement that We makes is far more complicated, and far more realistic.  We shows us that the only constant in life—and civilization—is change.  The irrational nature of “the square root of negative one” – a recurring motif within the narrative – demonstrates that  that there will always be things that break the rules, things that can’t be controlled, can’t be understood.  Governments will always be overthrown.  Systems will always be replaced.

Yevgeny’s novel has a remarkably complex message –and that message firmly cements the book as one of the most unique and important sci-fi novels of all time.

-Nicholas Conley

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A Tribute to George Orwell

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Throughout my childhood – and definitely in my adulthood – I have been very happy to identify myself as a bookworm.  I read novels like they’re going out of style, often reading about two books a week.  Whether I’m sitting at the beach, hanging out at the doctor’s office or waiting in the car as I pick someone up from an appointment, I always have my current book on hand.  When one has a book, one never has any “empty space” in his or her day.

Okay, with all of that said, here’s an embarrassing revelation:

Back at the beginning of my teenage years – back when I was about, say, 14 years old – there was a brief period in my life where I wasn’t reading.  Looking back, this realization is rather shocking to me, but it is what it is.  Oh, I had plenty of excuses; I was too busy, I hadn’t found the right book, blah, blah, blah…but regardless of any justifications I might’ve had, the fact is that my lack of reading was severely depriving me of a very real, very deep personal joy, a joy that – until that point – had been a part of me since I was a little boy.  And this, right here, is why I have a deep love of George Orwell.  Why?

Because Orwell’s 1984 is the book that changed that.

Reading the book was a class assignment.  I was interested, but not enormously so; at first, I entertained the lazy notion that I’d skim through, just enough to properly answer the test questions.  I just didn’t have time to read the whole thing, you know ? I just didn’t have a…

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

…and just like that, I was hooked.

By the end of 1984‘s first chapter, I was swept away.  Grabbed by the throat.  Addicted.  I dove into the pages, intensely devouring them in a way I never had before, with any book.  I read through nearly half of the novel in a single day.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, I was a reader again.

Naturally, as the years have gone by, I’ve come to appreciate 1984 on an even deeper level than I did on my first read.  The stark warning within its pages is a truly chilling statement on the weaknesses of humanity, and while there’s many fantastic dystopian novels out there, none of them are quite as horrifying…or as real.   Watching the news, one almost feels as if people are getting ideas from 1984.  A very scary proposition, indeed.

As a writer, George Orwell’s skills have always blown me away.  There’s a scene toward the end of Animal Farm, where the pigs—and we all know who/what those pigs are representative of, right?—suddenly learn to get on their hind legs, stand and walk upright, like human beings.  Under the pen of almost any other author, this scene would be laughable.  Goofy.  But Orwell sells it, somehow turning this  silly scene into something out of a nightmare.

In the end, though, I’ll admit that there’s one Orwell piece that has inspired me more than any other.   It isn’t a novel.  It isn’t a story.  It’s an essay, titled “Why I Write,” which every young or aspiring author should read.  It’s like an anthem for all writers, everywhere; as Orwell describes his own life story in detail, we writers can’t help but find ourselves in it, identifying with his struggle, remembering our own difficulties.  That essay can be found here:

George Orwell – Why I Write

The last paragraph, especially, is a thing of beauty.  No one has ever said it better than Orwell…and most likely, no one ever will.

-Nicholas Conley

Favorite opening lines

In any novel, there’s no line more important than the first.  The opener has to pull the reader in.  It has to grab us, shock us, interest us, do something that will make us decide to delve into the story.  Having recently had an interesting conversation regarding the best opening lines in literature, I decided to list a few of my favorites on this blog:

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It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

-George Orwell, 1984

I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man.

-Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from the Underground

If you’re going to read this, don’t bother.

-Chuck Palahniuk, Choke

It was a pleasure to burn.

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

All this happened, more or less.

-Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five

The man in black fled across the desert, and the Gunslinger followed.

-Stephen King, The Gunslinger

And of course, we’ll finish with the all-time classic, translated to English from the original German:

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.

-Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis

If you guys have any other favorites to list, feel free to post them below!  Also, before I go, a quick reminder:  this Saturday, I’ll be reading from The Cage Legacy at Books & Boos, from 5 to 7pm.

Till next time,

-Nicholas Conley

The Writer’s Role in Society

For writers, self-doubt is something we’re all too familiar with.  It’s unavoidable, really.  Whereas most careers are built on concrete evidence and a clear end goal for each day, writers usually operate from a sort of murky, hazy subconscious desire.  Our goals are driven by a mysterious voice that sometimes chooses to speak to us…and sometimes doesn’t.

Really, it makes sense.  After all, a professional fiction writer is someone who gets paid to make stuff up.  It’s a thoroughly exhausting job that takes a long, long time, and usually offers the writer very little financial reward.  Writers aren’t writers because we desire worldwide fame and lucrative amounts of money: we’re writers because we’re passionate about writing, and because we have something we want to say to the world.

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So, let’s ask the obvious question.  In a world full of such varied and highly essential careers as doctors, nurses, architects and police officers, why is writing fiction still important?

Put bluntly, what is the writer’s role in society?

This question goes beyond the simple entertainment value of a good story.  It also goes beyond the symbiotic relationship that’s experienced between a writer and his/her reader.  Not that this symbiosis is unimportant – in fact, for the writer and the reader themselves, that relationship is probably the most important thing – but  it’s not what we’re discussing here.  No, our focus here is on what the writer’s role to society is.  What does the writer bring to the world that no on else can?

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My answer is this: writers and storytellers are the individuals who have designated themselves with the daunting task of recreating the time, place and characters of whatever era they live in. I feel that this is especially the case when it comes to fiction; while an encyclopedia entry about the 1990s might fill in the details, it doesn’t paint a picture.  A novel written during the 1990s, on the other hand, can definitively show the flavor of the time, the voices that were most important, and the subconscious fears that drove that generation’s actions.  The different fiction genres each demonstrate a unique facet of the writer’s society.  A horror writer will memorialize the discomforts of his era.  A science fiction writer will demonstrate that era’s views on technology.  A literary writer, of course, will display what everyday life was really like.

By writing a novel, the writer acts to keep his/her era alive for future generations, so that our children and grandchildren can understand who we really were, and what we stood for.

But there’s more to it than that.  Much more.  By nature, writers are teachers.  Again, writers write because they have something to say to the world.  They have a lesson to teach, a lesson so important to them – be it for moral, intellectual, idealistic or cynical reasons – that they’ve sculpted an entire story for the sheer purpose of teaching that lesson.   To demonstrate this point, a few examples are listed below:

Art by Bernie Wrightson.

Art by Bernie Wrightson.

Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, is the first novel to question the idea of creating life through scientific means.  While Shelley’s concepts have been used in millions of subsequent stories – from movies such as Splice to novels like Galatea 2.2Frankenstein was the first novel of its kind.  The moral questions that Frankenstein ponders are troubling, so troubling that we continue to ask these same questions today. As we, the readers, become absorbed in the story of Victor Frankenstein’s rise and fall, and then, as we find our sympathies slowly drifting toward the murderous creature, we are forced to realize that the act of creation is never the end of a process.  Once you have created life – creation of life being the ultimate, divine task – you have the responsibility to care for that life, and by not doing so you become responsible for whatever that thing you’ve created turns into.

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Broom of the System, by David Foster Wallace, teaches us about the way that we use words and language to frame our society and our actions.  The novel questions the notion of free will, while demonstrating how one can use words to dominate other people; Wallace shows how well-constructed words can enslave one person to another person’s ideas, no matter how irrational those ideas may be.  Are we real people, or simply linguistic constructs, characters in someone’s novel?  Is there a difference between the two, really?  This is the question that Wallace’s protagonist, Lenore Beadsman, must ask herself.  As the readers of her story, we are forced to ask ourselves the same question, forcing us to learn more about ourselves in a way we would never dare to outside of the constructs of a fictional story.

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George Orwell’s 1984, the ultimate dystopian masterpiece, is a story that has radically changed the way we think about the government and our society.  Yes, words like “newspeak” and “groupthink” have become part of our lexicon.  But more importantly, what Orwell’s terrifying vision gave us was a terrible awareness of humanity’s own ability to crush itself.

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Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes shows us that under the wrong conditions, knowledge can be a dangerous thing.  Through an experimental scientific procedure, the developmentally disabled Charlie Gordon is transformed from a blissfully unaware bakery worker with an IQ of 68 into a cunning genius, and the result of this new intelligence is gut-wrenching pain and isolation. In a society so driven by the pursuit of knowledge and interpersonal connections, Keyes makes us reconsider notions that we previously thought of as unspoken truths.

Questions.  Plot.  Characters. Morals.  Story.  Style.  All of these things are tools within the writer’s cabinet, used – often subconsciously – to craft his or her statement about the world, and to reach the minds of others.  We write for ourselves, yes.  But more importantly, we write so that our voices will be heard by those who desire our message.

Photo from January 2010.

Photo from January 2010.

So, with all that said, time for some big news.  I’ve finally completed work on the manuscript for my second novel!

Now, of course, this doesn’t mean I’m out of the woods.  Not quite yet.  While the exhausting first part of the process is now complete – and by first part, I mean writing and editing the whole thing –  this only means that it’s now time to, you know, get the novel out there.  Publication is a  very lengthy, detailed process, so it’ll be some time before any future updates on that front.  But as soon as news is available, I’ll definitely make sure to keep you guys updated!

Anyway, I’ll tell you one thing: I’m excited as hell.  While writing my first novel, The Cage Legacy, was certainly a heartwrenching experience – an experience that took many years, as detailed in my post “Why I wrote The Cage Legacy” – I can honestly say that the hard work that went into writing novel #2 has actually managed to surpass that of the first.  The creation of this new novel has been, by far, the most challenging, ambitious and emotionally-draining writing experience I’ve ever had, and I’m proud of what it’s become.  I can’t wait to share it with you guys.

-Nicholas Conley